When the SpaceX CRS-8 mission heads for the International Space Station (ISS) on Friday, it will be carrying a first in manned spaceflight – the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). The 1,400-kg (3,086-lb) experimental habitat module is intended to test the feasibility of expandable module technology, which could provide living and working areas for astronauts, while reducing launch costs.
The BEAM is an inflatable storage module made of air-tight fabric based on NASA's abandoned TransHab design and will fly deflated in the unpressurized cargo area aboard the Dragon spacecraft. After docking, the ISS crew will use one of the station's robotic arms to retrieve the BEAM and transfer it to one of the docking ports on the Tranquility module.
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Once installed, a pressurization system will be activated to use air stored within the module to inflate it to a length of four m (13 ft) and a diameter of 3.23 m (10.6 ft). It will remain on the station for two years while the crews assess its structural stability, leak rate, and ability to withstand radiation and temperature variations. At the end of the test period, the module will be jettisoned from the ISS and burn up on re-entry.
NASA is interested in the Bigelow inflatable modules because of its desire for cheaper, lighter space assets and because ground tests have indicated that the Vectran fabric from which the modules are made shows superior resistance to micrometeorites compared to rigid module walls. If the demonstration proves successful, similar expandable models could increase the cargo efficiency (and therefore costs) of future deep space missions or a manned mission to Mars, where such modules could be deployed ahead of the arrival or the first astronauts.
The unmanned Dragon cargo capsule carrying the BEAM is scheduled to launch on April 8 at 4:43 pm EDT atop a Falcon 9 booster from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
The animation below shows the planned installation procedure of the BEAM.